Big Island police incident commander described ‘volatile’ day at Mauna Kea protest

Incident commander at TMT protest described protesters as ‘volatile,’ worried about violence

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Court documents offer more insight into the tense moments before and after 38 kupuna were arrested in a Thirty Meter Telescope protest at Mauna Kea on July 17.

In a court declaration filed in connection with a Mauna Kea access case, Hawaii County Police Department Maj. Samuel Jelsma — the incident commander that day — described deals with protesters that fell through shortly before the arrests started to happen.

He said as kupuna were arrested in the blockade of Mauna Kea Access Road, others would occupy their seats. Then, more than 100 protesters formed with women in the front. Jelsma said the 2,000 demonstrators outnumbered police 10-to-1.

“There was a significant risk that the increasingly vocal and volatile group of protesters on both shoulders would respond with violence if law enforcement officers took the necessary action to forcefully separate protesters who were blocking the road,” he wrote, in the document.

“The only way for law enforcement to effectively clear the roadway to allow the TMT convoy to proceed would be to use significant force, which would trigger a violent response and potentially create a riot that would have necessitated chemical agents to disperse the crowd,” he added.

The incident commander also said that some activists had their faces covered and carried bamboo sticks behind their backs. He also said that some vehicles parked in the middle of Daniel K. Inouye Highway, which hindered law enforcement vehicles.

The statements shed new light on the situation law enforcement believed they faced at the Mauna Kea protest — and what they would likely encounter anew if and when operations ramp up at the mountain.

But some say Jelsma’s account of what happened July 17 as overblown.

David Kauila Kopper, of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, was one of the legal observers that day.

“The declarations in these statements are made to create or at least support their contention that there is a threat, but there is no threat. This is supported by the evidence,” he said.

It’s been one month since the protest at Mauna Kea started.

Protesters are blocking the only access road to the summit, where the Thirty Meter Telescope construction site is slated. They say the $1.4 billion telescope project would amount to desecration of a place they consider sacred.

Supporters of the telescope, though, point to its potential for scientific discovery and job creation.

Tommy Aiu, HNN’s law enforcement expert, described the situation as tenuous.

"They (law enforcement) have difficulty having remaining a presence there and enforcing whatever the policy and the laws at any given time,” he said.

The Governor’s Office, meanwhile, says Hawaii County police made the decision to call off the arrests on July 17, with support from other agency leaders.

In those same court documents, Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors described a “combustible cocktail of factors” with thousands of protesters, unsafe road conditions, and heavy equipment waiting to be transported.

Native Hawaiian Honolulu police Sgt. Kimo Smith, who’s also part of SHOPO’s leadership, was on the front line on July 17 and offered his own account to Hawaii News Now.

"In this particular case, this was all passive people protesting in the middle of the road way," he said.

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